Any fan of sabermetrics or the Boston Red Sox knows that Jacoby Ellsbury was something of a defensive liability in 2009.
For those of you who aren’t hip to the latest statistical trends, Ultimate Zone Rating is currently the best available method of measuring fielding, providing an estimate of how many runs a player saved (or cost) his team with his glove.
Ellsbury’s -18.6 UZR (meaning, his defensive gaffes allowed about 19 extra runs to score) in 2009 was the worst in baseball among center fielders. Only Brad Hawpe (-21.3), Yuniesky Betancouty (-20.5), and Jermaine Dye (-20.0) did more damage with their gloves—not exactly great company.
In case that comparison was not a sufficient illustration of just how atrocious his fielding was, consider this: using Bill James’ Pythagorean Theorem of Baseball, Ellsbury’s defense (or lack thereof) cost the Red Sox a full two wins last season.
And yet, Boston GM Theo Epstein has not given up on Ellsbury’s glove. While the acquisition of Mike Cameron means Ellsbury will man left field in 2010, Epstein still believes he is "going to be a great center fielder.”
The issue of whether or not Epstein is completely off his rocker by defending such an abysmal glovesman leads to another, larger question: why do we assume that players’ fielding skills are consistent from year to year?
In a great article on FanGraphs, Dave Cameron recently fleshed out the theory that, just as hitters and pitchers can have breakout seasons and down years, fielders’ dexterity isn’t stagnant.
Ellsbury was one of the best fielders in baseball in 2008. In 144 games spread all over the outfield, he saved an estimated 16.5 runs—35.1 runs (over three wins) more than last year. To declare his glove a lost cause—a crime of which many of us Red Sox fans are guilty—is ludicrously shortsighted.
On the other side of the spectrum, critics of sabermetrics would point to that drastic difference as proof that UZR is horribly flawed, and they’d certainly have a compelling case for it. But, I ask, why does that drop-off mean that something is wrong with UZR instead of signifying that, last year, something was wrong with Ellsbury?
Epstein’s ability to see this is incredible—it’s brilliant, and it’s just another example of why he is one of the best GMs in the game (have at me, Yankees fans).
Which is why it’s puzzling that Epstein was so quick to give up on Mike Lowell.
There’s no question that the most noticeable impacts Lowell has made in his four seasons with the Red Sox have been with his bat. Since 2006, he has averaged 19 homers and 87 RBI a year to compliment his .295/.350/.479/.829 slashline—not to mention his heroic hitting in the 2007 playoffs.
But Lowell’s most valuable attribute (at least, before 2009) was his defense. After winning a Gold Glove with the Marlins in 2005, he earned a UZR of 26.1 in Boston from 2006-08.
Coming off hip surgery last year, his fielding prowess was nowhere to be found; prorated over 150 games, there was a drop-off of 30 runs between what his good range saved in 2008 and what his immobility cost the team in 2009.
Every fan with a calculator was scared by the Swiss cheese-like holes in Boston’s infield last year, and citizens of Red Sox Nation—myself included—were thrilled by the acquisition of Adrian Beltre, a man so committed to maintaining his mobility in the field that he doesn’t wear a cup.
In retrospect, that seems like it may have been an overreaction to a short-term problem.
Will Lowell reclaim his title as a master glovesman? Probably not. But since he put up a 15.6 UZR/150 just two years ago, there’s no reason to think he couldn’t be an above-average defender if he is truly healthy.
If Epstein thinks that, at 36, Lowell is too old to handle a glove, how could he explain importing a 37-year-old center fielder?
I’m not saying that Boston was wrong to sign Cameron and Beltre. We don’t know if Ellsbury will show more polish or if Lowell will stay healthy, but Jon Lester and I will both sleep better if fewer balls land in the Fenway grass in 2010.
But who’s to say the newcomers won’t fall victim to the same inconsistencies?
I don’t doubt that Beltre will be an improvement at the hot corner. But I think Lowell deserves a second chance.